If it seemed to you that NFL officials were letting 'em play during wild-card weekend, well, you were right. Penalties dipped by about a third relative to the regular season, a noticeable drop even when compared to recent postseason shifts.
An average of 7.8 penalties were called (and accepted) in the weekend's four games, according to official NFL game books of all four contests. During the regular season, the average was about 12.1 accepted penalties per game. (Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News first noted the trend Sunday night on Twitter.)
It's not unprecedented for penalties to dip in the transition between the regular season and the playoffs, but as the chart shows, this year's change was more significant than either of the previous two. I don't disagree with the idea that some officials call games more loosely in the playoffs, especially after watching Sunday's game at Lambeau Field in person, but there are a couple of contributing factors to keep in mind as well.
Selection bias: None of the eight teams to play on wild-card weekend were among the NFL's 10 most penalized teams during the regular season. The San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals were tied at No. 11, and from there the rankings ranged to as low as No. 32 (Indianapolis Colts). So it stands to reason that this wild-card group might not accumulate as many penalties as the NFL average. Of course, the Seattle Seahawks -- the most penalized team this season -- happened to have a first-round bye.
Referee trends: Officiating crews are reorganized for the playoffs based on regular-season performances, so crew trends have less relevance. In all four cases this weekend, the assigned referee broke from his regular-season personality. Bill Vinovich, who handled Saturday night's New Orleans Saints-Philadelphia Eagles game, led the crew that called the third-fewest penalties in the league but had 11 penalties accepted Sunday. Jeff Triplette, whose crew led the league in penalties called, had nine accepted Sunday in Cincinnati. Walt Anderson and Ed Hochuli, who also finished among the upper half of penalties called in the regular season, had six and five penalties accepted, respectively, this past weekend.
49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, for one, noted how aggressive Hochuli allowed defensive backs to play and said it was the primary reason why quarterback Colin Kaepernick had a career-high 85 yards via scrambles.
"There wasn't a whole lot called out there today," Harbaugh said. "Our receivers were getting grabbed. I think Colin saw that and just took matters into his own hands."
These figures could even out once the Seahawks and Denver Broncos, the NFL's fourth-most penalized team, get into the action this weekend. We'll keep you updated.